Let’s talk about broader school choice

Editor’s note: Wendy Howard is executive director of the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, which includes a broad range of school choice organizations. The views expressed here are her own and not that of FACE.

Four years after my daughter Jessica Howard began a petition drive to make it easier for students to access virtual education in Florida, she is still not eligible for the virtual provider of her choice. No wonder so many parents settle for learning options that may not necessarily be the best option. There is so much bureaucracy and public attack if a parent merely wants more choice.

As a parent advocate, I have met many parents who are desperate for just that.

One told me her child wrote a suicide note after severe bullying at her school, but fortunately everything turned out okay after they found another option. Another couldn’t transfer her child to a virtual school – despite severe allergies – because of the “seat time” restrictions that were in place at the time. Instead, she had to access a district’s “hospital homebound” program, which cost taxpayers an exorbitant amount of money.

In other cases, parents have children who are failing in the system, or are far ahead of the system, or are pursuing athletic or professional careers that require some reasonable flexibility with academic schedules. There are endless reasons why some families want to choose schools outside of their traditional zoned school, or prefer Option X to Option Y, or want to mix and match those options so their kids can thrive.

All of those parents and their stories have made me wonder: Why can’t we just let all parents decide? Why are we limiting their choices?

Why not all parents, all choices?

The idea of universal school choice came up at the 2nd Annual International School Choice Conference last month in Fort Lauderdale. While there, I had the opportunity to visit with Nihad Bunar, a professor at Stockholm University in Sweden. In that country, the money follows the student. And according to Bunar, it seems to be working pretty well.

Bunar said universal vouchers in Sweden provide all families with a certain amount of money their children can take with them if they opt for a school other than the nearest one. Despite that, Sweden still has a strong public school system, with the majority of students at all levels (preschool, elementary and upper-secondary schools) still attending public schools.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues: Segregation has been a concern from the beginning and, more recently, there have been calls for restrictions because of profit collected by international corporations. But according to Bunar, universal school choice as an idea and a policy is no longer a contested issue. Not even the participation of religious schools is questioned anymore.

In Florida, we have mostly dodged this debate over broader choice.

Gov. Rick Scott campaigned on the idea of the money following the student. And during the 2010 legislative session, the Foundation for Florida’s Future drafted a bill calling for Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, which would have allowed parents to decide what is best for their child. That bill died in committee, most likely due to the opposition of one or multiple special interest groups.

I’m sorry it did. In real life, parents decide on their child’s doctor for their child’s health and well being. Why shouldn’t they be able to access the best school choice option for their child?

In Florida now, 43 percent of students are attending schools outside of their traditional zoned schools. That’s incredible. And yet, there are tens of thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools and tax credit scholarships alone.

Those numbers tell me parents are demanding still more options. I think the obstacles to providing them should be removed.